February 20, 2015
Vines, the most recurrent of all characters in the Gombe saga, are difficult for many reasons. Most notably, they are adorned with thorns and other sharp edges that bore holes into the face and forearms of passersby. Because of this, a habitual traveler such as I begins to resemble something along the lines of a traditional methamphetamine user after he/she has imagined one too many ants in his/her pants (just yesterday, agitated by mosquito bites, I found myself scratching relentlessly at my arms and chest as I talked to what quickly became a very uncomfortable tourist). The vines also tend to trap their victims in precarious positions, such as rocky outcrops that hang over valleys or on the steep slopes of hills covered in loose gravel. On a Sunday morning, occupying the latter position with my field assistant Cosmas only a few paces ahead, I struggled to remove my legs from a mess of green barbs. Feeling a sudden urge to scratch the tingling sensation that traveled across my limbs, I managed to steady my footing, releasing a vine from my hand, and began raking my skin like the methamphetamine user into which I had slowly devolved. But beneath my nails, instead of the (strangely) familiar scabs, my fingers felt something harder– not one, but several, foreign bodies. Remembering in that moment that I only looked like a meth-head, I knew that the insects crawling all over my body were not figments of my imagination but a legion of siafu: the dreaded army ant.
As if in some cruel collaboration, the vines restrained me as the ants attacked, and in a poorly-formed attempt at escape, I flung myself down the hill, sliding and somersaulting until I landed at the valley floor with a thud, Cosmas following soon after. We had remained entangled in their midst just long enough for the ants to crawl, en masse, up the legs of our pants, and in an immediate, unspoken agreement that preserving our bodies greatly outweighed the importance of covering them, we quickly ripped off our clothes, hurling them to the ground as we danced around in our underwear and flung insects from our legs, arms, stomachs and backs. After several minutes of howling at the pain from tiny pinschers, I eventually removed the last of my attackers, and looked over to see that Cosmas had returned to a full state of dress. As he politely averted his eyes, I became conscious of my momentary lapse in cultural sensitivity; that is, until I looked down and realized that Cosmas was not averting his gaze from a potentially inviting young woman but from a scabbed-over lunatic in bulky white granny panties with a giant, brown stain of mud on placed aptly on her rear. And so, a literal puncture-wounded adult-baby in a soiled diaper, I shuffled about the forest floor trying to collect my field clothes, and what remained of my dignity. Plodding along later that day, after nursing my physical ailments, I concluded that shamelessness would likely be a regular component to my field experience. I had been foiled–shamefully–by a creature so low as an ant.
But, was I attacked by one of planet earth’s simpletons, or by one of the most highly convergent and successful systems that has ever evolved in nature? Army ants, along with many other bees, wasps, and interestingly, mole rats, are eusocial, animals so dependent on cooperation that individuals forgo their own reproductive potential to care for the offspring of one or a few queens. Across the forest floor, tracks of army ants form during periods of nomadic foraging, laid down body by body as they follow pheromone trails, and later form temporary, sedentary structures known as a bivouacs, or living nests, wherein workers organize themselves into balls with intricate compartments in order to protect the queen and her larvae, while soldiers patrol the surface. Within their massive colonies, no one individual leads, and so an entire collective must operate without failure. In one of the most elegant solutions proposed by nature, group decisions are made within a decentralized system via quorum sensing, a logically astute “if-then” equation based on interpreting population density and acting with a standardized response to a detected threshold. Army ants are an efficient collection of parts that create the ultimate machine, engineered to raid, survive, and eliminate girls in saggy underpants.
And so, whereas some might find shame in being reduced to a naked panic by a lowly bug, I choose to interpret this experience as my first, painfully intimate encounter with one of nature’s brilliant designs. As Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “When nature has work to be done, she creates a genius to do it”. I suppose the work that day just happened to be in my pants.